Evoking the Past, Festival Presents Indian Lineage of Arts

For two millennia, merchants and monks have carried parts of their culture across Asia, influencing everything from religious practices to the arts in Cambodia, including bringing some traditions from India that were transformed upon arrival.

Those adaptations should make seeing the originals all the more intriguing for Cambodian audiences when the Indian Embassy holds an arts festival, said Hab Touch, the Culture Ministry’s director-general for intangible heritage, which includes the performing arts.

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Classical dancers from the Kalakshetra Foundation in India perform a scene from the Indian epic tale Ramayana. (Embassy of India)

Held in three Cambodian cities over three months, the festival starts on Tuesday in Phnom Penh with an Indian classical dance performance of the epic tale Ramayana: the precursor to the Reamker, a tale frequently staged by Khmer classical dance and shadow puppet theater, he said.

“The Reamker in Khmer became part of Cambodian life,” Mr. Touch said last week. “You can observe it…in paintings, sculptures, storytelling.”

The Cambodian version contains different characterizations to the original, he said. In the Reamker, the monkey commander Hanuman falls in love with Sovann Macha, who rules the ocean, and has a child with her. In the Ramayana, however, the monkey commander is a rather ascetic figure, Indian Ambassador Naveen Srivastava said.

The performance, being staged by the Kalakshetra Foundation of Chennai, from southeastern India, will be held at the Chaktomuk Theater in Phnom Penh, the Bayon monument in the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap province next weekend, and in Battambang City on January 16.

Performances of traditional dancers and musicians from northern India will follow in Phnom Penh and Battambang.

In February, the Indian Embassy will hold a Buddhist festival at Wat Ounalom in Phnom Penh, featuring an exhibition relating to the life of the Buddha and visits of Indian monks. Then in March, the embassy will hold an Indian film program during the Cambodia International Film Festival in Phnom Penh. There will also be Indian food festivals this month in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap City.

Held in cooperation with Cambodia’s ministries of culture and tourism, the festival hopes to also raise Indians’ interest in Cambodia as a tourist destination, said So Visothy, a Tourism Ministry undersecretary of state.

“India is one of the main markets for Asean and the world,” he said at the press briefing.

Cambodia currently attracts around 40,000 Indian tourists per year, and the goal is to increase the number to 100,000 by 2020, Mr. Visothy added.

With this in mind, the Indian Embassy plans to use social media to broadcast in India the dance performance held at the Bayon monument next weekend, Mr. Srivastava said.

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